Chad Riegle, Drafting Manager, Paladin, Inc.

When people think of virtual reality, they tend to think of teenagers playing video games wearing bulky headsets or walking into traffic as they stare into their smartphones, chasing imaginary critters. Turns out the technology that allows gamers to swordfight giants in their mom’s basement is seeping into the real world, including our world of building design, construction and operation. The challenge is figuring out how to use it as a tool, not a toy.

As part of our company’s commitment to professional education, I recently attended a virtual reality seminar in Lexington conducted by Transylvania University professor Adam Evans. In addition to discussing the technology’s history and capabilities, he shared real-life, real-time examples of how it is being put to work. I paid particular attention to those that related to the way our profession turns big ideas into buildings that work as desired.

Our industry is just as competitive as any other, but we work under additional pressures to create buildings that are not only safe, but also comfortable and affordable to operate. Because our success relates directly to the way we create and utilize three-dimensional space, the highly realistic visualizations possible through virtual reality hold some serious potential.

One example of this potential can be found in the success Starbucks had planning one of their Tokyo stores using AutoDesk’s Revit Live. The design team used it when working with baristas to optimize counter heights & depths, views of customer seating areas, cash register placement, etc. This approach smoothed out their workflow and gave an enhanced view of the project before a stick of furniture was purchased or a frame was built.

These simulations or representations are grouped into three main categories:

  • Virtual Reality (VR), which typically simulates visual and even tactile environments in a highly detailed fashion.
  • Augmented Reality (AR), which blends a camera lens view of the immediate environment and digital avatars into one experience. The Pokémon Go game that devoured so many hours of young people’s time over the past few years is a prime example of this.
  • Mixed Reality (MR), which exists somewhere on the continuum between VR and AR in that the camera lens view is blended with the appearance of more realistic items like furniture in a room, a piping run in a ceiling or similar.

In the AEC community, these various “realities” could have a serious impact if used for:

  • FLEXIBLE PLANNING: Using technology like the HoloLens from Microsoft, one can scan a room and the objects in it, creating a 3D repeat of the space in your system. This allows for helpful conversations about how the desired furniture will look in various places or whether a door should be moved a few feet to the right.
  • SAFER TRAINING: workplace accidents are on ongoing problem on job sites and those caused by workers who just don’t know the safest routines can be reduced by training in a simulated environment. Folks who run control systems can leverage the “no consequences” simulations of the technology to learn the implications of decisions and departures from approved procedures.
  • EXTENDED COLLABORATION: With a virtual representation of a room or building, it is possible for distant professionals and specialists to “visit” a project and render judgment on challenges ranging from the placement of equipment to paint colors, saving travel budget and overtime.
  • ACCURATE DOCUMENTATION: Architects and engineers work hard to provide builders with the most accurate drawings for a project, knowing that change orders will likely emerge as the project proceeds. As that process draws to a close and the final building product takes shape, rooms and entire buildings can be scanned to capture and save the “as built” configuration for future reference.

I don’t see these technologies as candidates to replace technical drawings in the building process, but I do think they can optimize a company’s spend when it comes to details and scheduling. It can also save subcontractors and vendors time and money by letting them source items after seeing them “in the room” via the virtual reality projection.

If this technology continues its march, it’s just a matter of time before the construction and maintenance worlds are fully meshed with the virtual world. The good news there is that we won’t be using it chase Pokémon, we’ll be using it to outperform our competition and making building owners happier than ever.